Metro

Abigail Thernstrom, conservative scholar and writer, dies at 83

File/1997
Dr. Abigail Thernstrom at her office at home.

Abigail Thernstrom once told the Globe that with “America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible,” the 1997 book she cowrote with her husband, she wanted to move the debate about race “off the grounds of anecdote and emoting and onto the grounds of objective reality and fact.”

With race, however, the eye of the beholder often holds sway over what is perceived as objective, as was the case with in the response to the book.

Writing in Commentary in 1998, James Q. Wilson called it “a bottle-with-a-message thrown into the churning waters of contrary opinions. Tossed about in the turbulence, knocked from shore to shore, it has been treated (with exceptions) more as a symbol than as a work of scholarship. That is most unfortunate. … This is a work of excellent scholarship.”

Advertisement

Princeton University historian Nell Irvin Painter, though, told the Globe in 1997 that the Thernstroms “exemplify something one often finds among conservative academics, this view that, by virtue of being scholars, they think they know more about being black than black people do. Now that’s not to say that someone of one race ought not to write about another race. But don’t tell me what I should think or feel about being black.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Dr. Thernstrom, who formerly served on the Massachusetts State Board of Education and had been a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, died last Friday in an Arlington, Va., hospital. She was 83 and previously lived in Lexington.

Her daughter, writer Melanie Thernstrom, told The Washington Post that Dr. Thernstrom, who had tested negative for coronavirus, had gone into a coma about a week earlier, and it wasn’t clear what caused her decline.

“America in Black and White,” arguably her most-discussed work, ran about 700 pages — including charts, graphs, and academic citations. The Thernstroms argued that Blacks had made extraordinary gains over the past five decades, while lamenting that not enough progress had been made.

Championing a “colorblind” society, the couple appeared on TV and wrote essays for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Advertisement

They opposed using racial preferences, which they considered divisive, inessential, and largely ineffective, and their work placed them among America’s leading conservative opponents of affirmative action.

“America in Black and White” won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, which is given to works focused on racism and diversity.

Dr. Thernstrom and her husband, Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom, considered the book as a spiritual sequel to “An American Dilemma,” Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study on race relations. Progress had been made since then, they argued, but “black crime,” Black nationalism, and race-conscious programs such as affirmative action had stalled the march toward racial equality.

Some scholars, including economist Glenn Loury, took issue with the couple’s interpretation of crime and education data. Liberal critics, meanwhile, said that the authors’ opposition to preferences for Blacks ignored the enduring effects of slavery and racial discrimination; and still others accused them of striking a condescending tone.

Some of that criticism stung, she told the Globe in 1997: “Did I feel angry and hurt? Absolutely.”

Advertisement

Her other works include “Whose Votes Count?” — a 1987 book in which she challenged the creation of “majority-minority” electoral districts, arguing that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 successfully opened polling booths to Southern Blacks, but should never have been used to create “safe” seats for minority politicians.

The American Prospect described that book as “a virtual bible among conservative jurists, including Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas.”

With her husband, Dr. Thernstrom edited the essay collection “Beyond the Color Line” (2001) and wrote “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning” (2003). She also published the solo volume “Voting Rights — and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections” (2009).

“I’ve got a problem with being stuffed into boxes,” she once told the American Prospect. “Put me in a room of conservatives and I start running to the left; put me in a group of liberals and I start running to the right. I mean, I just have problems with ideologically coercive environments — I get claustrophobic.”

That restlessness could be traced through a life in which she moved from a liberal background to identifying with the neoconservative movement.

Abigail Mann was born in New York City on Sept. 14, 1936, and grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Her mother was a Jewish emigre from Germany and her father owned a collective farm, home to left-wing intellectuals as well as Holocaust refugees.

“I don’t know whether my parents were actually members of the Communist Party, but they certainly moved in a milieu in which nearly everyone was a party member or sympathizer,” Dr. Thernstrom told the Globe in 1997.

She graduated from Elisabeth Irwin High in Manhattan, a pioneering progressive school known as the Little Red School House. “We had Pete Seeger coming every Friday afternoon and singing songs — that’s the kind of place it was,” she recalled.

She attended Reed College in Oregon (“the left place to go that year”), then returned to New York, where she received a bachelor’s degree in European history from Barnard College.

As a Harvard graduate student, she met Stephan Thernstrom, a doctoral student, when both attended a lecture by radical journalist I.F. Stone.

“We just seemed to magically fit,” he told the Post.

They married in 1959, and Dr. Thernstrom recalled that the “message of racial justice was extremely important to me.” She and her husband picketed Woolworth stores, protesting the chain’s exclusion of Blacks from lunch counters in the South.

Dr. Thernstrom, who received a master’s in 1961, set aside her doctoral studies to raise the couple’s children — Melanie of Palo Alto, Calif., and Samuel of Arlington, Va. — telling the Globe that she never second-guessed that decision: “They were just wonderful years.”

While her husband taught at the University of California at Los Angeles, she campaigned for George McGovern’s during his 1972 presidential bid, but by the end of the decade she was writing for The Public Interest, the leading neoconservative publication.

Her family returned to Massachusetts and she received a doctorate from Harvard in 1975. Dr. Thernstrom taught in the university’s social studies program and the family settled in Lexington, living there for many years.

During some of that time, Dr. Thernstrom served on the state Board of Education, on which she championed charter schools, among other issues.

She also taught at Boston University and had been vice chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights.

In addition to her husband, who lives in McLean, Va.; and their two children, Dr. Thernstrom leaves four grandchildren.

In 1997, she sparred verbally with President Bill Clinton when he held a town hall meeting on race in Akron, Ohio. And while they disagreed strongly about affirmative action, she subsequently told the Globe that “the president, it seems to me, really deserves to be commended for being willing to take these issues on.”

She also wrote opinion essays for the Globe, including a frank criticism in 2000 of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. Metco, a voluntary integration program launched in the mid-1960s, sends Boston students to predominantly white suburban school districts.

“Metco is lucky that no plaintiff has come along to contest its constitutionally suspect policy of exclusion,” she wrote in the Globe.

As with “America in Black and White,” she made her points with data.

“Metco not only excludes whites; it has treated Hispanics and Asians differently than Blacks. Metco is 77 percent Black, 15 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian. And yet the Boston school population is 49 percent African-American, 26 percent Hispanic, and almost 9 percent Asian,” Dr. Thernstrom added.

She concluded that “the arguments for Metco in 1966 cannot sustain the program today,” and added that “if you believe in the program you run, you should welcome a close look at how well it works.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.